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LightHouse News

Maps for the blind: How the MAD Lab is challenging designers’ hyper-visual assumptions

For the experienced blind traveler, obstacle avoidance is not the overwhelming part—that’s why we have canes, dog guide and blindness skills. The challenging part is getting familiar with the lay of the land in order to make the spontaneous choices of everyday life, like which quirky cafe to duck into or how to get to the canal everyone keeps telling you to wander along.

And if you’re a sighted traveler, it’s easy to take mapping tools for granted with GPS apps at your fingers. Most people don’t realize that blind people don’t have easy access to non-visual or ‘tactile’ maps. (You might be asking: what’s a tactile map? It’s pretty simple—it’s a map with raised lines and braille markers that you can feel.)

That’s why the LightHouse Media and Accessible Design Lab hosted a Maptime SF/Oakland meetup last month: to teach multidisciplinary designers about accessible methods to use when creating maps and encourage them to incorporate tactile information into their work.

Attendees came from a wide swath of industries and design disciplines. The MAD Lab team hosted designers from Apple, architects from Arup, graphic designers, transportation specialists, programmers, students in interactive design, occupational therapists, special ed teachers, ocean mapping specialists, and highly skilled cartographers.

After comparing and contrasting examples of different design methods and discussing their effectiveness, Maptimers used these precepts to make their own maps. The group also discussed Tactile Maps Automated Production, and how this automated mapping system is a game changer for tactile map production.

“There’s such a lack of tactile graphics in the world,” says MAD Lab Senior Designer Naomi Rosenberg. “The only way to increase tactile graphic production is to teach more people how to incorporate tactile information into their designs. Sharing our expertise in tactile graphics empowers specialists in other fields to step outside of their normal design process, and design better for their audience and underrepresented audiences.”

Photos from the workshop

Take a little tour of their design process below. And if you’re sighted, next time you walk down the street or hop on Google maps, start to consider the lack of non-visual information that is available to tell you how to get around. If you’re a designer, it might just change how you approach your own designs.

Workshops like this support the MAD Lab’s goal of making visual information accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired. Ready to get your hands on your own tactile map? We can quickly create an inexpensive personalized map for you centered on a square mile anywhere in the US – visit or call the Adaptations Store to order! Stop by  at 1155 Market St. or give our specialists a call at 1-888-400-8933.

Announcing the 2019 Holman Prize Semifinalists

A compilation of photos of 41 Holman Semifinalists.

This year, we had 111 candidates from six continents for our third annual Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. We received ideas in 90-second pitch videos from advocates, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and more. It wasn’t easy, but we’ve narrowed it down to 41 semifinalists, including one People’s Choice Semifinalist.

We’re already proud of the impact our applicants have had on the world. Our 2019 candidates pitches have been viewed thousands of times on YouTube—that’s thousands of people whose expectations of blind ambition and ability have been challenged. This is an impactful feature of the Holman Prize, but the best is yet to come.

Below, we present the full list of 2019 Semifinalists. Each will send a detailed proposal and budget to be reviewed by the 2019 Holman Team in May. This year, we will select a People’s Choice Finalist from this group—that means the semifinalist with the most YouTube likes by May 10 will automatically become a Finalist. Help them out and like your favorite pitch videos! Final judging will take place in June, when the winners will be determined by an esteemed panel of blind judges who themselves are role models of blind ambition.

Click on each name to watch their original pitch video, share, and spread the word: This is what blind ambition really looks like.

Meet the 2019 Holman Prize Semifinalists:

Michael Aguilar 

who is passionate about inclusivity in the beauty industry, would use the Holman Prize to develop his accessible makeup brand Visionary Cosmetics, which uses braille labels and vivid color descriptions.

Chad Allen

who’s been a performing magician for over twenty years, would use the Holman Prize to digitize notable magic books and make them accessible to blind people  for the first time.

Krystle Allen

a disability rights advocate, would use the Holman Prize to pay for fifteen blind women to participate in the Miss Blind Diva Empowerment Fellowship Program that provides personal and professional development.

Abdullah Aljuaid

the People’s Choice Semifinalist, would use the Holman Prize to create a global consultation app for blind people to find information on learning, mobility, fitness and e-commerce.

Trevor Attenberg

who loves science and the outdoors, would use the Holman Prize to travel and teach blind people to identify birds by sound and explore other natural soundscapes.

Alexandria Brito

a powerlifter, would use the Holman Prize to train and compete in powerlifting competitions with the hopes of qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics.

Fernando Botelho

who works in social services, would use the Holman Prize to teach blind people how to build accessible, low-cost computers.

Stephanie Campbell

a newlywed who requested her wedding guests wear blindfolds during the vows, would use the Holman Prize to film the pilot for a sensory travel show, that explores destinations non-visually through the senses of sound, smell, touch and taste.

Yuma Decaux

who loves hiking and surfing, would use the Holman Prize to build an online community to make astronomy more accessible to blind people, with the hopes of a blind person discovering an exoplanet.

Deniz, Yunus, Utku and Mina

who are from Turkey, would use the Holman Prize to take the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing and create a documentary about it to inspire blind children to travel independently.

Natalie Devora

who is an author and activist, would use the Holman Prize to travel and collect stories from people of color with albinism around the world, to share these stories in an anthology and documentary.

Nicolas Dewalque

an athlete who hopes to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics, would use the Holman Prize to train and complete in the Coolangatta Gold race in Australia, which involves kayaking, swimming, running and paddling a surfboard.

Pauline Dowell

who lives on a sailboat on the Boston Harbor with her guide dog, would use the Holman Prize to form an all-female crew of blind sailors to compete in the Marblehead to Halifax Race.

Jesse Dufton

who’s an experienced winter mountaineer, would use the Holman Prize to lead an expedition on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. If successful in ascending a peak that hasn’t been climbed, he would propose the peak be named “Blind Ambition”.

Craig Faris

who loves hiking, camping, traveling and sailing, would use the  Holman Prize to train and purchase assistive technology to sail a 7000-mile course from North America to New Zealand.

Matt Formston

who’s a two-time world champion in para-surfing, would use the Holman Prize to run surfing workshops for blind children and youth all over  the world.

Dennis Gallant

who has worked as a teacher ranger with the National Park service, would use the Holman Prize to create a podcast to highlight the specific sounds from various national park locations to help blind people learn about the natural world in an accessible way.

Reem Hamodi

who grew up in Iraq where she didn’t have access to books in an accessible format, would use the Holman Prize to set up a system to record audiobooks and distribute them online to blind students in Iraq.

Finn Hellmann

a Brazilian jiu-jitsu enthusiast, would use the Holman Prize to travel and train with blind Brazilian jiu-jitsu experts worldwide, and then teach other blind people this accessible martial art.

Zackery Hurtz

a musician, would use the Holman Prize to develop Reference Point Navigation, which provides accessible indoor and outdoor access to information and navigation on mobile phones.

Alieu Jaiteh

who runs a training program for blind people in The Gambia. would use the Holman Prize to provide eighty blind people with rehabilitation training.

Larry Johnson

who’s worked as a radio and television broadcaster in the United States and Mexico, would use the Holman Prize to travel to Cuba to teach a motivational workshop in English and Spanish to empower blind people.

Jennifer Lavarnway

a former music teacher who loves to cook, would use the Holman Prize to travel to Naples, Italy to train in the art of pizza making and open her own pizzeria back home.

Paul Lemm

who taught himself to program, along with other blind developers, would use the Holman Prize, to develop their prototype software Sable to allow blind people to create audio games without coding or scripting.

Joshua Loya

who is an athlete and martial arts enthusiast, would use the Holman Prize to train and seek setting the world record for distance traveled on a wave by a blind surfer.

Shon Mackey

who’s competed in dancing competitions and talent shows, would use the Holman Prize to open Blind Rhythm Dance Studio to teach dance to blind and low vision individuals.

Lisamaria Martinez

who has recently discovered pole dance would use the Holman Prize to develop workshops, training and audio description to make pole dance accessible to blind people across the United States.

Bonface Massah

a human rights activist, would use the Holman Prize to create parent circles, so parents could discuss how to raise children with albinism and change the perception albinism in Malawi.

Marx Vergel Melencio

who plays acoustic and electric bass, would use the Holman Prize, to develop a device he created called VIsION, a wearable AI device for the blind, with the goal of mass production.

Mona Minkara

who is working on postdoctoral research in computational chemistry, would use the Holman Prize to film a documentary series called Planes, Trains and Canes, where she navigates and accesses the public transportation of five cities around the world.

Natalie Minnema and Sarina Cormier

who are from Canada, would use the Holman Prize to create an online platform that focuses on blindness awareness and accessibility training for employers and organizations.

Shawn Prak

who has a passion for electronics, building and repairing, would use the Holman Prize and his many skills to renovate his home.

Terri Rupp

who’s a writer, disability rights advocate and a marathon runner, would use the Holman Prize to form Project Runstoppable, a program that empowers blind children through a running curriculum.

Kris Scheppe

is the North American representative for Blind Sailing International and would use the Holman Prize to form a crew of blind sailors to complete in the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile race from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.

Brian Malvin Sithole

who co-founded Alive Albinism Initiative Trust, would use the Holman Prize to open a manufacturing plant in Zimbabwe that produces sunscreen for people with albinism.

Claire Spector

a textile artist, would use the Holman Prize to bring together blind weavers and blind textile artists to create new art, develop online and traveling exhibitions, and strengthen confidence in art-making.

Joshua Tatman

a motocross racer, along with his friend Pat, who is also blind, would use the Holman Prize to travel the country to motivate blind people to try different sports like snowboarding, jet skiing, sailing and more.

Johnny Tai 

who has a bachelor’s degree in social work, would use Holman Prize to film a series of professionally audio-described self-defense videos that blind people could access online.

Pamela Thistle

 an extreme sports enthusiast, would use the Holman Prize to train and heli-snowboard off the mountains of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.

Ness Vlajkovic

who’s finishing up her degree in journalism, would use the Holman Prize to open a braille bookstore in Perth, for blind and Deafblind people to have easy access to hard copy braille books.

Michelle Young

 who’s worked with blind people on structured discovery in Qatar, the United States, and Australia would use the Holman Prize to hold residential workshops on structured discovery and echolocation orientation and mobility techniques.

Email to be added to the Holman Prize mailing list.

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Join the Holman Prize community and make a tax-deductible donation to help fuel the dreams of blind adventurers and creators for years to come.

Our makeup workshop put its best face forward

At LightHouse, we’re excited to provide educational workshops on everything from cane use, to cooking to putting your best face forward with makeup. Applying makeup is a learned skill that requires practice and attention to detail, and can involve artistry or light, casual application.

The LightHouse Rehabilitation Department, in partnership with Employment Immersion, hosted a new class called “Putting Your Best Face Forward: Using Makeup to Enhance Your Professional Appearance.” LightHouse Independent Living Skills Specialists Bobbi Pompey and Dawn Leeflang, along with Kate Williams, Manager of Employment Immersion teamed up with beauty industry professionals from Benefit Cosmetics.

Kate Williams, who is blind, says she believes makeup can be a tool for self-care and empowerment.

“Frequently, blind women have said, ‘I’m afraid to wear makeup…I just don’t know how to do it,’” Kate remarks.

When Kate’s vision started changing, a manager at Benefit gave her brushes and taught her how to apply makeup non-visually. This experience helped her maintain the self-presentation that had always been part of her appearance and routine.

“I’ve always worn makeup,” she says.

Kate adds that she was excited to use this workshop to pass on makeup skills to blind people who may not have sought it out otherwise.

Bobbi says that this workshop did indeed give one student who was initially trepidatious about wearing makeup the push to incorporate it into her routine.

“We let blind people know that the barrier to wearing makeup is more of an imagined barrier, and that if you want to enhance your appearance for work, or fun or going on a date or whatever, you can do it and there are ways to do it.”

Kate says that she feels makeup is good for building confidence, and that she believes it is important for people to do what they can to make themselves feel attractive and presentable.

At the workshop, students received hands-on instruction on how to apply eye and face makeup and also label and organize their products and tools. Makeup artists also demonstrated application on students. Check out our photos from the event!

If this workshop interests you, check out our monthly calendar which if full of exciting, rotating programs and events.

On April 11: LightHouse Listenings (in the dark) with Romanian Guitarist Ioana Gandrabur

LightHouse continues its live listening party for ears only, LightHouse Listenings, on April 11 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. at LightHouse Headquarters. Join us for an evening of live music in the dark with award-winning classical guitarist Ioana Gandrabur, as she incorporates music with lively interactive discussions about music, blindness, and non-visual entertainment. Learn more and RSVP for the event.

“I used to keep the music apart from the fact of being blind,” says 45-year-old Romanian musician Ioana Gandrabur.

Ever since she was young, Ioana felt a draw and a connection to music. After learning the piano at age five, she picked up the guitar, and by age 14 she had won the Romanian National Guitar Competition.

At 16, she moved to Canada to study at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, where she graduated with honors. She continued on to Europe, where she studied at the Musikhochschule in Kolh, Germany, the Musikakademie in Basel, Switzerland and the Musikhochschule in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Throughout her education and pursuant career as a musician, Ioana was very aware that her blindness impacted how others perceived her identity.

“I never wanted to be known as a blind musician, just a musician,” she says. “But in time, I realized that it’s part of who I am just as much as being a woman.”

With age, she says, she realized that she had a unique perspective on music that she felt compelled to share.

“I joke with musicians and say that as a blind musician, I’m forced to do what any good musician does anyways, which is establish a non-visual connection with their instrument, tactilely and acoustically. This non-visual connection helps with memorization, too. So in some ways, blindness helps hone musical skills.”

Ioana says the opportunity to speak about how her blindness shaped her perspective on music, and music on blindness, attracted her to performing at LightHouse.

As part of her LightHouse Listenings performance, Ioana will play a concert in complete darkness – a format she says not only changes how the audience perceives the music, but also how she performs.

When she had performed in the dark previously, she remembers instinctively getting up to bow at the end of a piece.

“I realized, ‘Wow, I’m bowing to people that can’t even see me,’” she says. “It’s a very funny feeling to be in the spotlight, so to speak, and unseen; it’s a weird paradox.”

She says that this paradox creates a rich space for introspection, and that she hopes to cultivate an musical environment of understanding and appreciation.

“It’s an invitation for people to share the way me and other blind people perceive the world. And, for me, it’s an invitation for me to realize just how much my sense of being seen shapes reality.”

What exactly are ‘live listening parties’?

LightHouse Listenings is an event series dedicated to non-visual entertainment that foregrounds sound (check out this one with Bay Area podcast The World According to Sound, or this one featuring blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer). We’ll host panels, album releases, live musicians, you name it — if you’re into listening, we’ve got the venue. If you’re interested in staging your event for LightHouse Listenings, contact LightHouse Events Manager Andrea Vecchione at

Just Try It: How non-visual instruction can help you reach your fitness goals

What does it mean to try something? What factors into whether you’ll take the leap to do something new, unfamiliar, and perhaps daunting?

Scientific evidence suggests that trying new sports and athletic activities, and learning new physical skills enhance brain function, bolster confidence and even increase self-control.

That’s why LightHouse’s Health and Wellness Coordinator, Amber Sherrard, has created a series of fitness programs to foster a ‘just-try-it’ mentality amongst her blind and low vision students. The Try It Workshops bring groups from the LightHouse community to fitness and sport studios in the Bay Area to try activities like pole dancing, aerial silks, lyra (aerial hoop) and more.

Hannah Chadwick, 27, said that she thought the pole class was a good introduction to the style of dancing, which she probably wouldn’t have tried alone. She said attending a class for the first time as a blind person can raise uncertainty about an instructor’s teaching style and level of knowledge about making the class accessible, noting that instructors are typically accustomed to teaching from a visual standpoint.

“It was super tactile and inviting — and that’s the kind of atmosphere you would want to go to,” she says.

Hannah said that the pole instructor used a tactile teaching style, which encouraged students to place their hands on her to feel her body’s movement and position in different poses and moves.

“When you walk into a group of sighted people you might not know what to expect,” says Hannah. “If there’s a class that you’re not sure you want to try, and the LightHouse offers it, it’s a great way to check it out because they know that you’re coming, and might modify the teaching style.”

She added that knowing the teaching style would not be purely visual made it easier for her to dive right it and try to learn a new skill. Plus, having a group to learn with fostered a welcoming, supportive environment.

Upcoming Try It Workshops will introduce additional varieties of fitness classes for anyone looking to try a new way to move. On Saturday, February 24, LightHouse will host an AcroYoga class at Bay Jiu-Jitsu in Berkeley. This class combines partnered yoga, acrobatics and thai massage for a dynamic movement experience.

On Saturday, March 9, Amber will host an Intro to Lyra class at San Francisco Pole and Dance. For those who’d like to try hip hop dance at LightHouse’s Headquarters, Amber is hosting an Intro to Hip-Hop Dance class on Saturday March 30.

These are great ways for National Fitness Challenge participants to stay fit! LightHouse has partnered the United States Association of Blind Athletes and Anthem Blue Cross for the challenge.

And, for those who seek weekly, accessible wellness classes – LightHouse offers meditation, chair fitness and more. From rock climbing to yoga, LightHouse has a fitness program for everyone.

Essay: A camp counselor reflects on how Enchanted Hills changed her life

Enchanted Hills Camp enrollment is open for 2019. View the full schedule and apply for one-of-a-kind and life-changing camp sessions.

Essay by Holly Scott-Gardner:

In June 2018, I arrived at Enchanted Hills Camp to work for the summer. I honestly had no idea what I had signed up for. The truth was, there was no way I could have known, because in the UK as a blind person I would never have been exposed to something like EHC.

I always felt like I was pretty blindness positive, and though there was a time as a teenager when I hated my blindness and felt a huge amount of shame, I’ve worked through a lot of that over the last six years. Until I visited EHC, I thought I had already reached the end of that journey.

At Enchanted Hills, I watched blind people do all kinds of things, things I had never even considered. If you asked me before I went to EHC if a blind person could be a mechanic, if they could build furniture and all kinds of other things, I’d have probably said yes, because I wouldn’t have wanted to let my community down. But deep down I wouldn’t have believed it, not really. Surely, they would have help? Or something. But then I met blind woodworker George Wurtzel and watched how he worked. My mind was completely changed — there was someone right in front of me who was doing all of these things and teaching other blind people to do them too.

I remember the day I found out almost all the kitchen staff at camp that summer were visually impaired. It wasn’t that I’d believed a blind person couldn’t do the job, but until that point it had never entered my head that they would be. I believed in blind people, but they were never my default assumption. I would always assume a sighted person was doing a thing until I learnt otherwise. It was moments like that when I realised how deeply growing up in the UK had affected me, growing up I had never seen blind people working in environments like that.

Working my guide dog often wasn’t an option due to the heat, yet I didn’t have any previous travel experience with a cane, beyond learning to use one as a child but never doing it outside of my lessons. Over those weeks I learnt to love the feeling of exploring new environments, how my cane could tell me so many things about my surroundings. I have now become the kind of dog handler that will sometimes explore a place using a cane because I know how both methods of travel can benefit me, when before doing so would have never entered my head.

I also discovered that nobody had pushed me – not really. I knew that I would often do more than a lot of blind people in my country, but I was still very used to people doing things for me or not ever being given the chance to try. At EHC, all staff are equal. I learnt from sighted and blind people alike, I watched as we learnt together, made mistakes and worked on fixing them. Often there were times when I couldn’t remember which staff could see and which couldn’t because we worked together in a way I had never experienced before. The director of camp, Tony, is sighted and it was almost unbelievable to me at first how he worked with his staff. I had ultimately never been in a situation before where I was viewed as truly equal.

I was a terrible counsellor at first; I was going through this profound and intense journey, and it was only when I started to believe that I could do these things that I tried and discovered I could. That was something else I learnt – in the UK it’s so normal to hear a sentence begin, “I can’t,” and end with “because I’m blind.” I never heard that at camp. Once I realised that, actually, these are limitations we set for ourselves, I began to wonder what I, myself, was truly capable of.

I did not become a perfect cane traveller that summer. I didn’t learn to build things like others could, and I was certainly far from the best counsellor I could be. But I learnt that all these things and more are possible, and that realisation has changed my entire life.

Last week, I went on a couple of hikes. We walked through beautiful trails, laughing and talking to one another. Afterwards, I took some time to myself and thought about how three blind people hiking together was viewed as completely normal, when a year ago I’m not sure I’d have believed it would be something I, or anyone else, could do. I sat watching as a friend lit a fire, again without anyone questioning it. As we were all preparing dinner two of the guys went off to grill the food, one of them is completely blind. Today the phrase “a blind architect,” was dropped into a conversation.

I soak up each of these moments, drawing them close to me and letting myself live them again and again. Because it’s only been in the last six months that this was ever part of my reality.

We as blind people can do this. Blind Americans are no different than we are in the UK. But we have to be the change. We can’t expect someone to come along and do it for us, because they won’t, and if you feel like digging into the history of Enchanted Hills Camp, the NFB or ACB, or any number of blindness initiatives, you will learn that these were created by blind people who wanted to see their community thrive.

I could mention so many people and moments that have had an impact on me. These reflections have barely scratched the surface. I’m continually learning and growing not just as a blind person, but in every aspect of my being. And it’s because of the small moments, the people who reach out, who teach and listen and learn with me, that I am able to do this.

The reality is that you never really reach the end of a journey – not one like that. Because as you grow older, meet new people, and have experiences that you hadn’t before, your perspective continues to evolve. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt this year, it’s to never believe you have finished learning; you always have to be open to change.

Braille Mail: Get Your Tactile V-Day Cards at the Adaptations Store

This Valentine’s Day, give your loved one real feels with our new line of fun, touchable greeting cards. Our Adaptations Store is offering three designs, each with ink-print, tactile and braille designs on a white background.

  • Individual cards are $6, or you can purchase four for $20.
  • All cards come with an envelope.
  • All front covers of the greeting cards feature a combination of ink print and tactile graphic design.
  • The Adaptations Store and the MAD Lab will continue working together to design fun and creative accessible greeting cards that appeal to a wide audience, for all occasions.
  • We will roll out cards all-year-round. Keep posted for birthday, thank you, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day!
  • If you have suggestions for types of cards to sell for upcoming holidays, please email
A white greeting card features a 4 X 3 grid of ink-print and braille patterned and multicolored hearts.
A white greeting card features a 4 X 3 grid of ink-print and braille patterned and multicolored hearts. The inside of the card reads “Happy Valentine’s Day!” in red large-print and braille.
The inside of the card reads "Happy Valentine's Day!" in red large-print and braille.
An ink-print and tactile graphic of a tic-tac-toe board with a heart in the center, on a white greeting card. The inside of the card reads “Happy Valentine’s Day!” in red large-print and braille.
Red ink-print and braille X's and O's form the shape of one large heart on a white greeting card. The inside of the card is blank.
Red ink-print and braille X’s and O’s form the shape of one large heart on a white greeting card. The inside of the card is blank.
The inside of the card reads "Happy Valentine's Day!" in red large-print and braille.
The inside of the card reads “Happy Valentine’s Day!” in red large-print and braille.


Adaptations is the only place in Northern California with a comprehensive offering of tools, technology, and other solutions for blind and visually impaired people. The store is located at our San Francisco headquarters at 1155 Market Street, on the 10th floor. Store hours are Monday through Friday, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. We are also open on the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Although we do not take online orders at the current time, we encourage you to call our staff at 1-888-400-8933 to inquire about item pick up or mail orders or email our store staff at

Blind Students: Learn to Code with Swift Playgrounds Tactile Puzzle Worlds

Today San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind announced a collaboration with Apple to make learning to code more accessible to students who are blind or have low vision. LightHouse’s Media and Accessible Design Lab (MAD Lab) has created Swift Playgrounds Tactile Puzzle Worlds compatible with Swift Playgrounds, a free, fun and accessible iPad app aimed at teaching students to code. The MAD Lab has designed 47 tactile layouts corresponding with the 3D puzzle worlds found in Learn to Code 1. 

These tactile graphics enable students to better orient and navigate their way through Swift Playgrounds by touch. The materials supplement the accessible in-app coding experience, and include Unified English Braille (UEB) and large print text, with high-contrast and embossed tactile graphics in order to be universally accessible. The collaboration is all part of Apple’s Everyone Can Code program, an accessible curricula aimed at bringing coding into more classrooms.

“I’m not going to be one of those people who’s being told ‘No, you can’t do this because you’re blind,’” says Darren, who was an early blind user of Swift Playgrounds.

Darren, a senior at Texas School for the Blind in Austin, learned about Swift Playgrounds at Coding Club, an evening program facilitated by his school. TSBVI was one of the first schools to begin offering the Apple coding program to students. It was a fortunate discovery for him — especially in a world that often assumes a blind person can’t learn to code.

Darren first pursued his dream of learning to code at a public high school, but the online coding module used in his intro-level class was not accessible. As a result, the school offered him a cumbersome accommodation: the teacher assigned a fellow student to read Darren the lines of code and type his responses. For Darren this was a considerable barrier: not only did he not get hands-on experience, but he had to work at someone else’s pace.

“I think the teacher knew it was frustrating,” Darren says, “but he wasn’t entirely sure how else to make it accessible.”

When Darren first heard that the Swift Playgrounds app was accessible, he downloaded it onto a rented TSB iPad, eager to dig into a new world of coding. But as his new coding class started and he began to work his way through the “puzzle worlds” that make up the game’s levels, he felt he would benefit from also having tactile feedback.

iPad showing Swift Playgrounds app and accessible features.
iPad showing Swift Playgrounds app and accessible features.

“At first it was confusing because I didn’t know how the world looked,” he says, without a hint of irony. Thanks to Apple’s commitment to accessibility, Darren could use Swift Playgrounds with VoiceOver, Apple’s built-in screen reader, but he needed a way to explore and experiment in the 3D puzzle world – collecting gems, toggling switches – and in order to do that, he needed a mental map of the physical layout.

Enter the MAD Lab

Swift Playgrounds Tactile Graphic Visual Design

Meanwhile Apple was working on a solution – with help from the LightHouse’s Media and Accessible Design Lab.

Building off years of experience creating tactile maps of cities, universities and cultural landmarks for blind and low vision explorers, the MAD Lab is proud to present a new accessible media experience by designing a tactile experience that corresponds to a dynamic 3D puzzle world. Mapping the visual layouts of each puzzle world and enhancing them with cartographical elements to optimize for comprehension, the LightHouse is proud to partner with Apple to further the blindness community’s tech literacy, around the world.

Putting the tactile worlds to good use

Once the Texas School staff got their hands on the guides, everything changed for Darren. “We were creating graphics,” his teacher, Susan O’Brien says. “We had 3D printed some of the switches, the toggles, the portals, but then when we saw your maps, we were like ‘oh my gosh, this is so much better than what we’ve been doing.’”

Today, Darren uses the tactile layouts map to orient himself to the world, then he’ll talk through the commands, then go back onto the iPad and really start to do the coding. “We saw him develop a workflow,’ says O’Brien. “Finding that workflow that’s best just for you – that’s so crucial for everyone, blind or sighted.”

For Darren’s part, he’s now working his way through the game, twice as fast as before. “I’m extremely happy that I don’t have to rely on someone else to get the job done now.”

Downloads for students and educators

Teachers or organizations who have access to braille embossers can download the tactile graphics files to print themselves, or if an embosser is not available, can order beautifully printed, embossed and bound hard copies through the LightHouse’s Adaptations Store.

Swift Playgrounds is a revolutionary iPad app that makes learning programming language Swift interactive and fun. It requires no coding knowledge, so it’s perfect for students just starting out.

Download the Swift Playgrounds app for free app on the App Store

Download Swift Playgrounds Tactile Puzzle Worlds for free via Apple

Don’t have an embosser? Buy full-color or tactile-only editions at the LightHouse’s Adaptations Store (1-888-400-8933).

Watch LightHouse on ’60 Minutes’

On Sunday, January 13, 2019, 60 Minutes featured LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in a story called “A Different Kind of Vision.” The story profiles of LightHouse Board President Chris Downey, as he celebrates his 10 year anniversary since becoming blind. The story is about taking on and moving past life’s challenges, and is a testament to the power of blindness skills training and vocational rehabilitation like the ones we offer at LightHouse.

Lesley Stahl addresses the camera, an image of Chris Downey in the backgroundHosted by CBS News’ longtime anchor Lesley Stahl and produced by Shari Finkelstein and Jaime Woods, the 13-minute piece follows Chris’ journey through brain cancer, blindness and regaining his confidence and status as a working architect. The LightHouse’s new headquarters, designed with Downey as a consultant, plays a major role in the piece as do the LightHouse’s training programs and an interview with our CEO, Bryan Bashin.

The best part? Chris is unequivocal about every individual’s ability to continue doing what they love, regardless of eyesight. Stahl closes out CBS’ legendary Sunday evening news magazine by asking Chris one of the toughest questions for a confident blind person to answer: “Don’t you still want to be able to see?”

Chris pauses, thinking deeply about the question, and then finally responds, humbly offering: “I don’t really think about having my sight restored. There’d be some logistical liberation to it. But will it make my life better? I don’t think so.”

Watch the story on CBS News.

Why every blind person should apply to the 2019 Holman Prize

Holman Prize applications are open until February 28, 2019. Learn how to apply.

Being successful as a blind person is not about being a superhero. We often see images of people with disabilities atop mountains, creating beautiful things or connecting their community in big ways. But often the narrative is over-simplified to the exclusion of the real factors that got those people to where they are: research, planning, collaboration, humility and a whole host of other skills that maybe aren’t as glamorous as the idea of scaling a craggy peak on your own. But these are the real stories we want to hear.

Truly, every blind person has a dream and a set of proclivities, and the Holman Prize is about nurturing those passions and goals at every level. The prize does not reward superheroes; it rewards everyday people who can demonstrate a commitment to a project that is meaningful to them. That’s why, we believe, every blind person in the world should apply.

Apply in 2019

On January 15, 2019, applications open for the third annual Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, funded by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. This prize awards up to $25,000 each to three blind individuals who wish to push their own limits and carry out a “dream” project of their own creation.

The Holman Prize is named for 19th century explorer James Holman (“the blind traveler”), who was the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, and the most prolific traveler of any person before the era of modern transportation.

Our inaugural prizewinners, Penny Melville-Brown, Ojok Simon and Ahmet Ustunel recently completed their year-long adventures. On November 29, they will be honored at our LightHouse Gala: A Celebration of Blind Ambition, where they will share their stories. Although their Holman year may be over, Penny, Ojok and Ahmet are determined to continue to push boundaries and change perceptions about blindness around the world.

The 2018 winners, Stacy Cervenka, Conchita Hernandez and Red Szell are just starting their Holman journeys. Each has already accomplished a great deal in the nascent days of their projects.

Stacy Cervenka: The Blind Travelers Network

Stacy is busy working with a website developer, web designer and business analyst on creating The Blind Travelers Network, an online community for blind people to crowdsource information about the accessibility of places they travel. Besides reviews, the website will allow people to communicate with each other and share their travel tips and stories through message boards and blogs. Stacy has been conducting focus groups with blind people to learn what features they would find useful on The Blind Travelers Network. She will be seeking people to test a beta version of the website towards the end of winter. The public rollout of the website will be in the spring.

Conchita Hernández: Changing lives in Mexico

Conchita will convene the first-ever blindness conference in Mexico run by blind people and registration is now open for “Cambiando Vidas” or Changing Lives, which takes place in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico from July 26-28, 2019. Conchita is currently contracting with teachers and exhibitors. The conference will have workshops for blind people, parents of blind children, and professionals in the blindness field. Conchita explains that in Mexico, sixty percent of blind children don’t have access to an education. With Cambiando Vidas, Conchita hopes to begin a systematic change by creating a community of people and more resources to help improve prospects for blind people in Mexico.

Red Szell: An extreme triathlon in Scotland

Red is training to complete an extreme triathlon that includes off-road biking, an ocean swim and climbing a 200-foot sea stack called Am Buachaille. Recently, Red and his climbing partner Matthew traveled to Sardinia where they began climbing Le Grand Mammut, a challenging, but less difficult rock climb that would help him train for Am Buachaille. Le Grand Mammut is about 500 feet high, but at 200 feet, Red, dehydrated and with a case of sunstroke, was forced to execute an emergency rappel down the cliff with Matthew. Red reflected on the failure to summit in his blog entry, “I needed a reminder that the sport I love is more than just a physical challenge. It’s about risk analysis, problem solving and above all, partnership.”

The six Holman Prizewinners come from varied experiences and backgrounds with projects that are vastly different. From academia, to art to athleticism, the Holman Prize welcomes pitches of all kinds. Starting January 15, it’s your turn to upload a 90-second video to YouTube and fill out the official Holman Prize application.

Want to know more and stay in touch? Visit, follow the Holman Prize on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or send an email to to be subscribed to the Holman Prize mailing list.